The First Word: America's missile crisis and ours

Israel's failure to learn from Kennedy's face-off with Khrushchev may come back to haunt us.

n korean missiles 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
n korean missiles 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The words that follow will not be to the liking of those who consider themselves "peace activists" embracing the notion that if only Israel were more "forthcoming" peace would prevail. History teaches us just the opposite. Aggression must be confronted - not appeased. In October 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles on Fidel Castro's Cuba 240 kilometers off the Florida coast. He knew this represented an immediate threat to the United States, and waited to see how the young president of the US would respond. John F. Kennedy's response was determined. On October 22, he addressed the American people, declaring that any attack upon the US emanating from Cuba would be viewed as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union itself. US vessels and planes imposed a blockade on Cuba, stopping Soviet ships from reaching the island. Six tense days passed before Khrushchev ordered the removal of the missiles. On November 20, and not before the last missile had been removed, Kennedy lifted the blockade. NOW FAST forward to 2000, when in the wake of serious terrorist attacks, Israel rashly - and unilaterally - withdrew from its security zone in South Lebanon. For Hizbullah, this was incontrovertible proof that terror paid. The pullout took place against a developing clash of civilizations: Fundamentalist Shi'ite (and Wahhabist) Islam versus Western civilization. Hizbullah had been born in the early 1980s, inspired by Iran and energetically fostered by Syria. Israel's withdrawal gifted its enemies with a perfect opportunity to increase the flow of arms to Hizbullah in South Lebanon and train it for the next war. In a short time, thousands of rockets threatening Israel were deployed in the region, creating a new balance of terror. Israeli prime ministers received detailed intelligence reports on the rocket array capable of reaching beyond northern Israel virtually to the country's center. But unlike Kennedy's resoluteness, they preferred to turn a blind eye. Our leaders also turned a blind eye when Hizbullah detonated explosive charges along the northern security fence, and basically disregarded Hizbullah's abduction and killing of IDF soldiers on various occasions. The Israeli leadership continued to shirk its responsibilities to deal with the military infrastructure Hizbullah had created - its chain of subterranean bunkers, protected rocket-launching sites and command and control systems. Having established its strength in the field, Hizbullah then ran for the Lebanese parliament, further consolidating its already powerful political position within Lebanon. NOT ONCE in the six years during which South Lebanon was turned into a fortified missile base did any of Israel's prime ministers declare - in a message akin to Jack Kennedy's warning - that "An act of provocation on the part of Hizbullah will be viewed as an act of provocation coming from Syria." While Damascus was directly supplying the missiles and openly preventing Lebanon from acting against Hizbullah, not a single word of warning to Syria was uttered. MOREOVER, despite increasing Palestinian terrorism actively encouraged by Hizbullah - which was intoxicated by its own victory over Israel - Ariel Sharon adopted a "restraint is strength" approach arguing that withdrawal "is good for the Jews." That may be the way peace activists view the world, but it is not the way Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas understood Jerusalem's acquiescence to Arab assertiveness. Instead, the terror-supporting entities saw Israel as weak and indecisive. In the face of the powder keg threatening to explode in its face from Lebanon, and the Kassam rockets raining down on its citizens in the South, Jerusalem mostly sat on its hands. And by so doing it lost its deterrent edge. Hizbullah's chief Hassan Nasrallah even saw our behavior as a precursor to Israel's ultimate collapse: "Israel may own nuclear weapons and heavy weaponry, but by God, it is weaker than a spider's web." No wonder that on July 12 Hizbullah attacked Israel's northern border, launching a diversionary rockets assault on nearby boarder towns while killing eight soldiers and abducting two others. The prime minister of Israel responded with words of determination: "No more," he said. And he attacked - Lebanon. All the while, Syria continued to send missiles to Hizbullah, paralyzing a third of the State of Israel. Despite that, Olmert promised not to attack Syria. Damascus was given immunity. Israel did attack the weapons convoys coming from Syria, but only after they had crossed into Lebanon. THE CUBAN missile crisis ended with a victory for the Western world. It proved the United States' willingness to confront the USSR in order to defend its own citizens. It was also this American assertiveness that prevented a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers. It goes without saying that Kennedy's standing grew as a result of his steadfastness against aggression, while Khrushchev was deposed not long afterwards. In comparison, our Lebanese "missile crisis" ended with a victory for the Axis of Evil. The smell of blood, we all know, stirs sharks into a feeding frenzy. That helps explain why Iran has contemptuously dismissed the latest ultimatum from the international community and has stepped up its nuclear development program. It explains why President Bashar Assad has declared that "Syrian soldiers will liberate the Golan Heights." It explains why, in Lebanon, Nasrallah's standing is growing ever stronger, despite the fact that he is forced to hide in his bunker. It is Israel's position that has been weakened, first of all in the eyes of its enemies. But even more worrying, some of our friends now view Israel as less of a strategic asset and more as a burden. Ehud Olmert is not John F. Kennedy. He lacks the courage and historic wisdom needed to guide Israel in this treacherous region and difficult time. If only he had learned from Kennedy to threaten the messenger, but place the onus on - and act mainly against - the actor actually calling the shots. As rockets and missiles were launched that sent a million Israelis to their bomb shelters, Olmert failed to hold Syria rather than Lebanon responsible. Had he done so from the start, he might have prevented the war that was. But even more ominously, Olmert's fear of confronting Syria - despite its blatant role in the month-long bombing campaign against the North - has sown the seeds for the next war. More than Israel needs a commission of inquiry, it needs to speedily rehabilitate the Israel Defense Forces. And it badly needs a new doctrine that explicitly warns: "Any act of aggression on the part of Hizbullah will be viewed as an act of aggression emanating from Syria." Israel must be willing to go to war to prevent future rocket and missile attacks against our population centers. But what we most need is the kind of courageous, wise and determined leadership provided by a Jack Kennedy. The writer is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Counterterrorism, IDC, Herzliya, and a former Likud minister of internal security.